I just finished leading the Nourishing Relationships Yoga Retreat at Breitenbush Hot Springs. I had the pleasure of hosting 17 delightful humans, for two days, exploring the Buddhist and Yogic teachings of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity (the Brahma Viharas). It was magical. Also, it was challenging. And, at times, I found myself overwhelmed by my inner critic.
I’ve been teaching a TON of workshops lately, and have learned what my maximum capacity is for these special events. Two workshops and a weekend retreat in a month, along with all of my other regular gigs, without any days off, turns out to be a bit too much to take on. Noted! While all of these extra events have gone really well, I found myself stretched too thin. When my resiliency is down, my inner critic is loud. Really loud.
During the last dinner on retreat, I was visiting with a friend, Jules. She asked how I was feeling. My first impulse was to share the difficulty of my experience. This was followed by the need to exhibit the “got-it-all-together / everything’s good”, retreat-leader image. Once I checked the latter, fear-based reaction, I decided to share my genuine experience. The core of the retreat was learning to apply the teachings of the Brahma Viharas to build intimacy in our relationships with ourselves and others. This was the perfect time for me to practice what I was teaching.
Jules listened sweetly, asking questions that helped me to dig more deeply into my experience. She didn’t offer any suggestions or remedies, yet, after that conversation, everything shifted. I didn’t have a plan to overcome my inner critic, or a fix … I just shared what I was feeling, and my perspective flipped.
Previous to that conversation, as I was teaching, I would think of something I wanted to add to the next retreat, or something I wanted to change. It’s common for me to edit as I teach … writing myself notes … adding … subtracting … evolving … I refine content each time that I teach it. When my inner critic is loud, this process can feel horrible. Every note I make … every line I cross-out or add, feels like a finger pointing at my every flaw. This may seem silly to you. Frankly, it feels kind of silly to write it right now, but it’s often my experience when I’m bombarded by the voice of the inner critic.
After the conversation over dinner, when I would think of something to add or change in some way, I didn’t feel upset that I hadn’t thought about it before. I felt excited. I felt enthusiastic, even giddy, with inspiration. Growing didn’t hurt in those moments, it felt wonderful and expansive.
When I’m feeling bogged down with a critical inner narrative, it’s helpful for me to try to shift my perspective in some way. The conversation with Jules was the catalyst in this circumstance. It allowed me to transform my nervous system excitation from anxious excitement into inspired excitement. When we get down to the bones of nervous system excitation, it’s the same biological experience, and transforming it can be as simple as a matter of perspective.
EXCITED-ANXIOUS VERSUS EXCITED-INSPIRED
When there’s sympathetic nervous system activation, there’s a general arousal of the body. This means that, sometimes, anxiety and inspiration feel very similar. Based on our previous experiences, conditioning and concepts, our minds can interpret nervous system up-regulation as excited-anxious, or excited-inspired/happy. A study from the Harvard Business School, published by the American Psychological Association, found the following … when people tell themselves to get excited, they perform better than they do when they tell themselves to calm down.
“When people feel anxious and try to calm down, they are thinking of all the things that could go badly. When they’re excited, they’re thinking of all the things that could go well,” said the study author Alison Wood Brooks, PhD.
Other studies have shown that people who recategorize anxiety as excitement perform and feel better in environments where they are speaking publicly or participating in similarly vulnerable activities, like singing karaoke. Their bodies produce fewer pro-inflammatory cytokines, which lower performance and generally make people feel crappy. So, when there’s anxiety, we can play around with transforming that energy into inspired/happy excitation. This is a way of “leaning into the stimulation”, rather than trying to counter it.
POWER IT UP
Another study by the Harvard Business School researched the effects of body posture in relation to a couple different hormones. Humans and other animals position their body differently when they’re feeling confident and when they have low self-esteem. Confident or high-power positions are broad in the chest, have a wide stance, with arms lifted and open. And low-power positions are kind of shrinking into one’s self – rounded or hunched spine with the shoulders rolled forward, a collapsed chest, and crossed arms and legs… basically getting the body to appear smaller. In the study there were a couple groups: one that took a high-power pose, and one that took a low-power pose. The researchers took saliva samples before and after to test for hormone changes. They found that the high-power pose folks had an increase in testosterone, which among many things gives a sense of confidence and dominance, and a decrease in cortisol – a hormone related to stress. The takeaway from this study is that when you need a boost of strength and confidence, get yourself into a high-power pose for two minutes. You can also add a mantra, by mentally repeating a word or a phrase that’s empowering.
Leading retreats and workshops, and being a student in them, myself, is such potent medicine. I feel grateful for the support of my community in this process. During the closing circle in this retreat, I shared some of what I just shared with you… the inner critic, the conversation, and the transformation. It was liberating and healing, and I wouldn’t have had that experience without everyone who was there. Sangha/community is everything. When we allow ourselves to be held in those moments of darkness, we’re reminded that we’re not alone and that we’re stronger than we think we are.